How often do you take your heart into consideration? When we think about overall wellness, we might first consider muscle growth or weight loss—but all too often we forget to focus on our heart. The good news is, as we change our lifestyle to improve cardiovascular health, we often start to inadvertently improve other areas of our general health. For those who might be new to healthy heart habits, here are five simple ways to make long-lasting changes:
1. Make Small Diet Adjustments
While it might seem like the obvious answer, changing your diet significantly impacts your overall health. Instead of trying to change what you eat overnight, it’s better to start small. For example, take one of the food solutions below and try to apply it to your life for one week:
- Solution #1: Reduce your regular fast food snacking routine by creating pre-made snack bags to go in your car, work desk or home. If you’re worried about cutting fast food out completely, try making it a one-time reward at the end of the week!
- Solution #2: Try buying local and fresh! Make fruit and vegetables fun by shopping at a neighborhood grocer or farmer’s market. Not only will this help you eat food in season, but you’ll support your local economy.
- Solution #3: Learn to read food labels and focus on checking the sodium levels. While most Americans consume roughly 3,400 mg of sodium per day, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consuming only 2,300 mg per day. Sometimes, the difference will come in purchasing a low-salt or low-sodium option over its regular counterpart.
- Solution #4: Substitute red meat or high-fat meats with chicken or turkey. If you’re interested in going meatless, consider plant-based substitutes for burgers or sausages from your grocery store.
Find something you think you can do? If nothing else, remember this simple goal that’s recommended for seniors hoping to improve their heart health: add color! The more colorful your meal, the more likely it is to have a variety of nutrients. Deep greens and reds are often vegetable-based and carry better value for your body. And hey, who doesn’t want a colorful plate of food for Instagram!
2. Find Opportunities for Regular Movement and Exercise
Exercise isn’t just going to the gym: it’s anything that keeps you moving! If you’ve tried to get to the gym before but just don’t feel comfortable, it’s totally okay. First, take stock of your current level of activity:
- Sedentary: Includes little to no daily movement; sitting for the majority of the day.
- Lightly active: Includes small movements from regular housework, intermittent standing or movement from daily chores (like going to the grocery store).
- Moderately active: Includes activities like fast-paced walking, swimming, social sports or high-intensity cleaning.
- Vigorously active: Includes activities like weight-lifting, aerobics, competitive sports or running/jogging.
Depending on your current level of activity, think about how you can move up a tier. What would take you from sedentary to lightly active in your daily life? How can you incorporate movement more often in your routines? The more you focus on making small progress, the less exercise will feel like a chore.
3. Regulate Your Stress and Anxiety
While stress or anxiety is not a direct cause of heart-related health issues, the symptoms of these experiences can often exacerbate potential issues. When we’re stressed, other facets of our life can also become affected like our sleeping patterns, eating habits or exercise routines. Each of those areas of your life can affect your heart in the long-term.
Curious on how to manage your stress? For some, it may be as simple as improving breathwork practices, taking up meditation or scheduling small breaks throughout the day. For others who experience more severe stress that inhibits their ability to function throughout the day, it might be time to seek the help of a professional.
Clinicians who specialize in anxiety disorders or human behavior may be able to help you undo the damaging thoughts and behaviors that increase your stress. Therapists and psychologists can also help you work through your mental patterns or behaviors that may be affecting your day-to-day life. No matter the path you take, a focus on mental health and your stress will ultimately affect your heart—and happiness—in the long run.
4. Know Your Heart Health Numbers
Monitoring your blood pressure is often a good indicator of overall heart health. Doctors will be able to help you do this on a regular basis, but even with their help, it can get a little confusing. To clear things up, here’s a breakdown of the basics:
- Ranges: Blood pressure is broken down into ranges categorized by Normal, Elevated, Hypertension Stage 1, Hypertension Stage 2 and Hypertensive crisis. Your goal should be to fall into the “normal” range and will require the support of a doctor if you consistently go beyond that level.
- Reading: Blood pressure is measured and represented by two numbers: your Systolic blood pressure (pressure against your artery walls as the heart is beating) and Diastolic blood pressure (pressure against your artery walls as the heart rests). The American Heart Association’s newest guideline now defines a normal range as less than 120/80 mmHg.
Remember, you don’t have to tackle heart health alone – talk to your doctor and ask them for guidance on your blood pressure levels. Asking for the help of a professional can not only help you manage the complicated elements of maintaining heart health, but also give you advice on what changes you can make tomorrow that will last a lifetime.